Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera’

For a while, the Welsh National Opera used to be mentioned in magazines not because of the many famous singers born in Wales, such as Gwyneth Jones, Margaret Price or Bryn Terfel, but rather for its association with Decca and Teldec record labels. Then Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Luciano Pavarotti, Samuel Ramey would join the company to record Bellini’s Norma. Those days are long gone, but the WNO has not exactly kept within regional limits, as this tour in England proves.

The tour program involves Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux and Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, the last title also part of a project of staging three operas by Verdi. In partnership with the opera house in Bonn, director David Pountney and stage designer Raimund Bauer have devised something that they call “the Verdi Machine”, three panels that can be moved and shaped to form all kinds of set.

In Mr. Pountney’s production, the panels are used to create a sense of play within the play, a kind of red-and-white bizarre masquerade, where everybody is playing a part in Riccardo’s Fellini-esque fantasy. The staging is overbusy, and its farcical approach makes the story far less dramatic than it should. Also, visually, the production looks seedy in a way that suggest the cabaret rather than the opera house. Maybe a richer budget would do the trick.

The run of performances was first led by the WNO’s conductor laureate Carlo Rizzi and taken over by Gareth Jones. The musical direction this evening was nothing but serviceable and it is hard to imagine that, a couple of decades ago, Reginald Goodall recorded Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with these forces.

This evening’s Amelia was American soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, whose full lyric voice is a model of homogeneity, all registers rich and distinctive, and her technique is solid. One feels that nerves of steel make her operate so surely and cleanly close to her limits in an emploi in the vicinity of dramatic soprano repertoire, and yet I would be curious to hear her comfortably within her natural range as a formidable Donna Elvira, Elettra or Vittelia. This evening, not surprisingly, the most lyric pages in her part, the aria Morrò, ma prima in grazia, let Ms. Williams show the whole extent of her talents. There she sang with such naturalness and sincerity that one would need a heart of stone not to be touched.

Gwyn Hughes Jones is one of those natural tenors who are not afraid of high notes. He relies a bit too much in nasal resonance and, whenever he wants to boost projection, his sound can become quite glaring. Nonetheless, he has the necessary congeniality for Riccardo and sings with true animation. Sara Fulgoni too is a natural contralto whose low notes sound integrated and well-connected to her middle register. Hers is not really a big voice as one is used to hear in this role, but she has good projection and found no trouble in the small auditorium. Julie Martin du Theil was a sweet-toned Oscar with good divisions and charm to spare.

Roland Wood (Renato) was victim to a lung infection and was unable to sing the first scene in the third act. Before and after that, his forceful baritone sounded healthy enough but for one or other instances of instability. His replacement (whose name I could not understand) sang with a richer and darker but marginally less focused sound. Both offered satisfying performances. 

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Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera is something of a tough cookie. Verdi seemed keen on trying superposition of “affetti”, not only by mixing comedy and tragedy, but by exploring situations in which characters in highly contrasting state of mind sing together. From the overture on, the shifts of mood can be sudden and difficult to manage – and the vocal parts are extremely challenging, especially the prima donna role. Gianandrea Noseda is a conductor who reads his scores with an open mind and is ready to discover new things in them. However, he is no Karajan. This investigation is often made on the expense of musical flow, dramatic intensity and a beautiful orchestral sound. This evening, for instance, Riccardo and his courtiers seemed more mechanical than lithe in the opening scene, Ulrica’s conversations with darker forces anything but dangerous – the orchestra displayed an extremely dry, brassy and common sound throughout, some singers had light voices for their roles and, having a colorless accompaniment kept on leash to help them, brought about the extra challenge of giving them the whole burden of producing any expression, something that they did very occasionally. After the intermission, act III seemed to benefit from the increase in raw energy demanded by Verdi and the performance finally took off. There is a chorus by the end of the opera (Cor si grande e generoso) which is the key moment of this opera. A performance that has succeeded in everything but failed here has ultimately failed. So the beautiful increase in tension built this evening in this passage has redeemed a mostly uneventful afternoon.

A great share of the uneventfulness has to do with Lorenzo Mariani’s disgraceful production, a blend of the kitsch, the superficial, the inefficient and the sloppy. To make things worse, singers have sung the “American” version of the libretto, while the extremely incoherent and anachronistic staging shows something more in keeping with the “Swedish” alternative. A country with such fame for design and theatrical tradition such as Italy should not render its reputation such bad service by exporting something like this to an audience that has paid extremely expensive tickets.

When I left the theatre this evening, I did not know what to say about Oksana Dyka’s Amelia. Listening to her singing this evening was something similar to witnessing a brain surgery: it is not beautiful, there are moments when one would rather go out, but at the end one is relieved to know that there is someone who can perform something as difficult as this when one needs it. Her steely, voluminous and invariably loud soprano opens up in ear-splitting high notes without much effort. I was going to write that she can hold very long lines, but there is very little sense of phrasing in what she does, except when things become very high and very loud. In these moments, her solidity is truly impressive. This all has very little to do with Verdian singing – and one just needs to listen to his or her recordings with Callas, Tebaldi, Stella, you name it, to confirm that – but there is something very honest about her bluntness nonetheless. There is nothing elegant or stylish about her (if you have SEEN her onstage, you know what I mean) and she does not try to be. What she has to offer is consistent loudness – and she does that. I wonder if she has tried Turandot. It might work in a fascinatingly scary way.

Although Marianne Cornetti is moving towards dramatic soprano roles, she still finds time and energy for such a low-lying role such as Ulrica. She does still have her low notes, but her voice now sounds soft-grained for the part. That did not prevent from offering a very commendable performance with feeling for Verdian lines. Ai Ichihara (Oscar) has the necessary ebullience, but the volume is what the French call “confidential” and the high notes were sour rather than silvery.

The role of Riccardo is a bit heavy for Ramón Vargas, who took one whole act to warm up. His low notes are undersupported and there is some flutter in his basic sound, but his is an essentially pleasant voice used with good taste and sense of line. His act III aria was generously sung. If Gabriele Viviani too is on the light side for Renato, he knows how to produce the right effect in this repertoire in his firm-toned, slightly dark baritone.



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It is no surprise that a repertory opera company is supposed to have a great share of unmemorable performances (sometimes the same is said of some opera houses running stagioni) – and as I do not want to make this long, I’ll go straight to the question – considering budget, the shortage of soloists for many roles etc etc, even if one has to pull off a performance for almost every day of the year, why make some evenings a self-defeating experience from the start? I may be accused of being too particular (especially considering that the Deutsche Oper had a full house this evening and has probably made for the money spent on staging a new Jenufa or a new Liebe der Danae), but I wonder why one would wish to exhume Götz Friedrich’s helplessly kitsch production before the eyes of an audience? I don’t know how it looked in 1993 (?), but this evening it seemed ugly, decayed, drab and the set changes took ages to be completed. Maybe there was some interesting Personenregie back then, but now it has been completely lost.

Now, if one had a dream-team of Verdian singers willing to sing Un Ballo in Maschera, then, I agree, it would be a pity to miss the opportunity because there isn’t enough money to build an entirely new staging – but that was hardly the case this evening. The originally announced cast had Yonghoon Lee as Gustavo and Thomas Hampson as Renato, what was already some degrees below golden age. This evening’s was a quite decent cast, but the lackluster staging needed something exceptional in terms of singing. I have to make some considerations on the prima donna’s case. Although Tatjana Serjan’s soprano lacks Italianate sheen and may sound shrewish mid-range, it really is a voice of more than enough heft for the lirico spinto repertoire. Moreover, she has very solid low notes and her mezza voce is truly angelic. She is the kind of singer that pulls off an outstanding phrase, sometimes better than in your recording with Leontyne Price or Renata Tebaldi, just to spoil the effect by something clumsy in the next minute.  When everything works at optimal level, it can be very thrilling – especially in her full, round and easy high notes. Heidi Stober’s soprano is a bit too blond for Oscar, but she offered the evening’s all-round best performance. To start with, she was the one person on stage who seemed to be having fun, singing with unfailing sense of style, firm, bright top notes and accuracy, even while jumping and running in a convincingly boyish manner. Maybe the Deutsche Oper should think of casting her as Zdenka when they revive their Arabella. Ewa Wolak treads carefully in the higher end of Ulrica’s tessitura, but flashes gigantic low notes in the auditorium.

As far as I understand, this was Korean tenor Jung Il Kim’s debut in the Deutsche Oper and probably the first time he has sung in a big traditional opera house (please correct me if I am wrong; when one googles his name, one gets North Korea’s “dear leader”). He could have been nervous and it is difficult to say something definitive about him.  He was trained in Rome and sings in Italian style (albeit with a Bergonzian cleanliness of line), but his tenor does not sound Italianate at all. It is a very peculiar voice, and it took me some time to get used to it – it is a warm and velvety voice, sizeable enough but, with very little squillo, it tends to disappear in ensembles or when singing with the soprano. The passaggio is smooth, but his high notes take one second to develop its harmonics and, when this happens, they turn out fluttery and occasionally curdled.  The lack of focus makes his low notes very dim too. This evening, he would tire very easily, sometimes singing with dangerously very slack breath support. I have to confess that, once I’ve got used to his gentle, almost old-fashioned singing, I couldn’t help seeing the potential there. But I am not sure if Gustavo/Riccardo is the right role and the Deutsche Oper the right place to study it. Dalibor Jenis was a forceful, committed Renato with more than enough temper (and stamina) for Eri tu. He had some trouble with his low notes and could sound tremulous now and then – in any case, he had the audience on his side. Among the small roles, Tobias Kehrer’s (Count Horn) well focused bass deserves mention.

Maestro Jacques Lacombe had a difficult time in his traffic cop duties this evening – the orchestra had to be reined-in in permanence, the chorus was a bit disobedient in what regards following his beat. Clearly the aim was nothing but survival. It is a pity, the house orchestra could relish one or other orchestral effect, but the performance was turn on really occasionally (the closing concertato, for example – with beautiful singing from both sopranos and the night’s only unleashed orchestral playing).

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Think of pale pink and blue, and bright red and silver and the 60’s and a grand hotel somewhere in Alabama and the State’s governor political campaign – and segregation, witchcraft and murder. No, it is not a movie with Jane Fonda and Paul Newman. It is the Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s 2008 production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Although it takes a while to get used to the glitter, the idea is not bad per se. After all, when Verdi  had to adapt his plot because of censorship, he himself chose the United States as alternative set. I might be thrown stones at, but I have always found something Broadway-like in Un Ballo in Maschera – take David Parry’s recording in English, look for We can all go and see her together (i.e., Dunque signori aspettovi), close your eyes and tell me, if you can, that you do not feel at Broadway. In any case, although the concept has plenty to offer, it requires a far more complex production.

To start with, the pink ballroom simply does not work as an all-purpose set. Riccardo says that they have to go somewhere else to see Ulrica, but here they do not have to move to see her. Second, Ulrica tells Amelia she has to go to yet another place to find the herbs for the incantation she is looking for. Here, it is again the ballroom and having a bunch of ferns inside the columns sounds like a cheap solution. Third, Riccardo asks Renato to escort Amelia back to her place in town. Here, Amelia just needed to take the same corridor she had taken to get to her room in the same hotel. Finally, none of the main characters but Amelia uses a mask in the closing scene. They are actually seated side by side and unconvincingly seem not to realize each other’s presence. I mean, when you have to “accept” all that, it just looks like sloppy work. Couldn’t they stage the scene by the gallows in some sort of parking place? That would not be a set so difficult or expensive to build. Ulrica’s scene could take place in a storage room at the hotel – an even cheaper set. With some patience, that sort of thing could be done. At least, when some bad seats with limited views are sold for almost 50 euros, one could show a bit more consideration to the audience. Just having ideas is the easy part of the job – making them work is the hard part.

Conductor Philippe Jordan’s search of elegance and symphonic quality is always an advantage in Verdi. The love duet’s closing section, for example, may sound like band music when not properly handled, but animation can live with polish. Otherwise, uneventfulness may creep into the proceedings and finally turn the whole performance unmemorable.

Catherine Naglestad is no Verdian soprano – in a part often recorded by non-Verdian soprano such as Margaret Price or Josephine Barstow. Although her voice is not intrinsically exquisite, she sings with good taste and imagination and floats beautiful pianissimi. She is also a good actress, but her lower register not always works properly, she invariably blurs crotchets and the extreme top notes in act II eluded her entirely.

Un ballo in maschera is considered a tenor opera – and having the uprising Piotr Beczala as Riccardo places an immediate interest in the performance. There is no doubt about his beauty of tone, sense of style and animation – this is a voice always pleasant in the ears. He also know how to place a smile in his singing – and this is important for such a debonair character. The question is – should he really advance further in Verdian territory?  In a small opera house such as the Lindenoper, the role ultimately works well for him, but one can see that he has to brace himself for the heroic moments, especially in act II, when he was often overshadowed by the soprano – except at the duet’s last note, when both were covered by the orchestra.

Alfredo Daza has the measure of the role of Renato and he plunges in the part with body and soul. Sometimes the results are dramatically over the top and the curdled sound his baritone acquires above mezzo forte does not suggests much nobility to this non-villain character. Mariana Pentcheva knows how to play her voice’s unequal registers to the right effect for Ulrica – and she has the necessary charisma for the role. Announced indisposed, Sylvia Schwartz only sang the first verse of her two arias. Nonetheless, this was the best performance I have seen with this singer – her absolutely free top register floats beautifully in this higher-lying roles. Maybe she should explore this repertoire more often than the purely lyric roles I have often seen her sing. As a curiosity, Oscar here is a girl – her act I costumes are a bit at odds with the surroundings. She looks like a dominatrix, but she is only Riccardo’s secretary – but I wonder if a woman in that position in the 60’s would dress like that.

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